An Unexpected Christmas Gift
written by: Patricia Furstenberg
It was Christmas Eve and while it was still early afternoon, with the heavy clouds now lying low and everyone’s excitement buzzing like bolts of energy, the twinkling lights had begun to glow in the shops’ windows, on the eaves, hung in trees, tucked around door frames, or even adorning the houses of the village. As the wait for Christmas was nearly over and winter still had a long time ahead, mostly feasts and holidays, the cheer was barely contained.
Children, laud and laughing, were twice as excited rushing indoors, their noses aimed for the kitchens, their mouths watering, dreaming of that Christmas feast – while their eyes darted around searching for clues of hidden presents. Others were panting up the hill, behind the church, where sleighs had already left the prints of a week’s fun. A sprinkle of last-minute shoppers scurried through the market, while chatter and laughter permeated the air.
Father Carp, the old carpenter, bundled in a vest of sheep’s skin adorned with embroideries that once were bright, green trees and blue stars, a gift from his long-departed wife, stepped outside his shop stomping his feet, pulling a heavy snow shovel behind. The path along his antique shop was clean, cleaned it himself that morning, nevertheless, he was out again, looking up and down the street, taking in the cheer and the merriment, the movement of people, the sight of togetherness. Listening to their laughter, even catching a whiff of baking – that brought back memories of past Christmases when his dear wife was still with him, and not with God, and their children were still young and needy, and not departed in foreign countries. Life seemed to have gone by like a snowflake.
Father Carp exhaled, his large carpenter shoulders dropped, and the lines around his eyes, the proof of many days filled with laughter, now sagged a little more. Still, content with his dry road, he returned indoors with a firm step, set the pot for tea, and went to his bookshelf. A few volumes were left, the ones his children didn’t need. He reached for a leather-bound one, rather old and stained around the corners, and opened it to a place his hands knew well. Tonight he’ll read to himself alone the story of Christmas as the Bible told it.
He read, following the words with his eyes, the story with his heart. He read and he sighed, heavier as the tale went on, and as always when he read about the birth of Jesus he remembered his young family at the beginning of his life when he, too, was a young man and struggled under responsibilities, and felt sorry for Mary and Joseph who had to settle for a manger.
“I would have offered them shelter,” he whispered, “I would have offered them food, and swaddled the baby in the shawl made by the loving hands of my beloved wife… But what gift could I possibly offer Him?” The old man looked around his room, at the pots on the shelves, the row of books, the frames on the wall, and the blankets on the bed. His carpenter tools had been long tucked away. There wasn’t a thing he deemed valuable enough, special enough for the Son of God. When his eyes stopped on a wooden box. He knew the box well, for he had carved it with his hands for a special girl with a heart of gold before he had even decided to marry her but his heart knew that he will. Back then his hands were strong and sure and when they held the carpenter’s tools magic happened.
He got up from his chair, quicker and easier than usual for his heart was beating faster, excitement brimming, the lines around his eyes flourishing again. With both hands, he picked up the box and set it on the table. His calloused fingers traced the carvings on top, two doves and two hearts, silent wish and prayer for a peaceful and long-lasting marriage. He had to pull the lid a little to open it, the wood stuck to the box over time and the expanding of fibers. A familiar, dear scent reached his nostrils. The old man shut his eyes and held still willing his heart to steady, and his vision to clear.
On top of letters he knew word for word and of an embroidered handkerchief stained by time and tears of love lay a dried rosebud, perfectly preserved, and a tiny pair of baby shoes. The knitting was a little stretched after it warmed the toes of three generations of newborns, but it was still soft, still holding together, like his hands had held the tiny feet minutes after they’d been born as he placed the knitted shoes on. These, these will be a fine gift for a newborn he thought, and, returning the box to its place of honor he resumed his reading.
The street fell silent. The room was long quiet, only the sound of paper rustling and stirring the shadows, the memories, and the heavy breathing of old Father Carp. Until the sounds became more and more regular, until the soothing whisper of paper ceased too, the heavy book dropped, as the old man was deep asleep.
Outside, the town was asleep too and dreams and wishes swirled around it, on wings of frigid winds.
Then, a sudden bump against the front door jolted the old man awake.
What, he’d fallen asleep in his chair again? What would his darling wife say about it? She wouldn’t approve for sure. If she would still be around. But if she’d still be around, she’d see that he sleeps in bed.
Father Carp rubbed his hands over his face nearly bumping over his glasses in the process, when a new bump, followed by a knock, stirred him wide awake.
“I shovel snow for a smile and a crust of bread,” said a voice.
“What, on Christmas morning?” said Father Carp opening his door. Outside stood a familiar face; skin stretched over cheekbones that seemed to float on a body so thin, it disappeared completely inside a hand-me-down, oversized coat. A broom that had seen better days stood beside him. Boxes, the street sweeper who also recycled papers and loved the empty boxes.
Father Carp looked at his clean road, then at the toothless grin. Behind him, the village stretched empty on this bright sunny morning, everyone still indoors, sharing presents and making new memories with their loved ones. While here, on the threshold between an empty, dry home and a sunny but nippy morning stood two men, each one alone, and each one in need of company this Christmas morning.
Father Carp took a step back and invited Boxes inside. The skinny figure took a tentative step and then froze, his shoulders drawn in, his eyes large. A soft whimper came through. Father Carp looked a question at him.
“Thank you. Thank you,” was all Boxes could say. Father Carp showed his unexpected guest to the table. But the man paused by the hearth, stretching out his hands and rubbing them together. It made a rustling noise, pressing dry skin against dry skin. Steam was lifting slowly from his chilled coat.
Father Carp took the woolly throw from the bed. It felt soft against his skin. A faint scent of violets touched his nose and he almost, almost felt his wife’s soft hand cupping his cheek. But instead of hugging the old shawl as he usually did, he wrapped it around his visitor’s shoulders. A sob shook the skinny figure.
“Thank you,” said Boxes again. “I haven’t been inside a home in a long time, a very long time.”
“You are now,” said Father Carp.
The tea was ready, a cup already steaming, held tight against the visitor’s wheezing chest and thick slices of sweet bread generously spread with butter filled his plate when another bump, and a whimper, came from outside the front door.
Father Carp placed his hands on his knees to aid himself stand, craning his neck towards the old shop window. What could it be this time? He wasn’t expecting anyone this Christmas morning.
Boxes offered to have a look-see, but Father Carp simply placed his hand on his shoulder. “Sit,” he said with a smile feeling thin bones that seemed to crackle and crumble beneath his solid touch.
Father Carp opened the door with a smile. Whoever it was, he’ll welcome him inside. A cold draft grabbed at his ankles and slapped his face.
At first, all he saw was the empty street, festive with the bright snow and the lights still gleaming up and down the road. A snowman decorated with a scarf waved at him from across the road. Then a shadow caught his eye, almost hidden by his door frame. A girl, not taller than his elbow, leaned against the door frame, a bundle pressed against her chest.
“I’ll clean, cook, stitch,” she whispered, a wisp of steam, barely visible, lifting from her lips. Father Carp had to lean closer, the woman’s voice barely audible, “For milk, for my babe.” Only then did Father Carp notice the babe wrapped in a thin shawl. The girl sank deeper against the door frame, her arms nearly offering him her bundle, her eyes watching him with immense sadness, reminding him of the eyes of the Madonna statue in the church. How many times had he gazed into them, seeking solace after the departure of his children? After the death of his beloved wife?
Father Carp offered his steady arm to the girl, helping her over the threshold. They just made it inside when the girl collapsed, Boxes coming forward just in time to catch the bundle and wrap her in the shawl that had kept him warm.
“I’ll warm up milk for the babe,” said Father Carp at once.
‘I’ll sweeten some tea for the girl,” said Boxes.
The room was now buzzing with activity, with scents and sounds. It was coming alive the way it had been so many times before. The sun was high enough now that it spilled through the open shutters dusting Boxes with gold light as he sat on his knees near the chair; the girl crumpled upon it, a lavender shawl draped over her. The babe, pressed against Father Carp’s chest.
The sun’s glow caressed the tiny, round face and gilded the rosy cheeks. And then, still succumbed to sleep and warm in the old man’s arms, the babe smiled at a thought that amused her. An inner tickle, and as innocent as her sleeping face; perhaps the feeling of safety, or the sweet, buttery scent of milk rising from the stove. Father Carp felt his cheeks stretch the way they haven’t in a long time. A warm feeling spread across his chest, expanding to his heart. His eyes steamed while his lips curled up, and as he looked across the room at the young mother who brought him this unexpected Christmas gift of simple joy, and at Boxes who had brought him the gift of human company, Father Carp felt grateful for this unexpected, but thought-after Christmas gift.
Father Carp reached for the wooden box and removed the knitted shoes. Then slowly, with gestures long forgotten, he pulled them over the tiny feet.
The babe, so young, so much closer to the Creator than any of them had been in a long time, and even then only through prayers, had brought them all forth, through her sacred smile and her need for protection from all those surrounding her. So that together they can make, and share new memories.
The babe’s smile seemed to go viral around the room that Christmas morning while on a shelf old memories contained in letters and a dried-up rose slept in a carved wooden box.
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